Here come the Hawks, the mighty Blackhawks......and several years earlier than I would have expected. I had thought the Blackhawks were right there on the brink, though maybe still a year or two away from being championship caliber. Yet here they are, just one win away from their first Stanley Cup in almost fifty years.
I must admit that my Blackhawks history is surprisingly spotty. Given that I come from a Chicago-area spectator-sports-loving family and was quite a sports a fanatic myself for my first three decades, and have always admired hockey, I've never really been a big fan of the team.
When I was five or six, I remember listening to Hawks games on WIND in the evening, to lull myself to sleep. That was at the tail end of the era of Bobby Hull (part of the renowned MPH line, with Pit Martin and Jim Pappin), just before Hull bolted for the richer pastures of Winnipeg and the fledgling World Hockey League and put the team on a downward spiral that it didn't recover from for nearly two decades.
After Hull departed my fandom did as well, and was revived only during the late 80s and early 90s when, fresh out of college, I finally attended my first Hawks games at the legendary old Chicago Stadium and was instantly hooked. Watching games from the second balcony there was truly an unforgettable experience. Cheap-seats Hawks fans are probably the most passionate and knowledgable sports fans anywhere - and also cynical and sarcastic, which of course immediately endeared them to me. Two anecdotes from that period:
First: Back then the Hawks' power play was particulary inept. Even with a man advantage they'd be lucky to get off more than one or two shots on goal, and rarely scoring - in fact, a shorthanded goal by the other team was at least as likely as the Hawks scoring on the power play. It got so bad that when the Hawks were on a power play and dumped the puck across the blue line (since Denis Savard seemed to be the only guy on the entire team who could stick-handle the puck across the line, even with a man advantage), the guys in the second balcony would call out "Line change!", as if the best the Hawks could hope for on the power play wasn't a goal, but a moderately successful change of lines. Thing is, those fans were deadly accurate in that assessment.
Second: Ed Olczyk was a local Chicago kid who was a high draft pick of the Hawks and played several unaccomplished seasons with the team. Then he was traded away, to Winnipeg, and I happened to be at his first game back in Chicago after being traded. "This is cool," I thought. "The fans will definitely give the local guy a warm welcome on his return. Was I ever wrong. When they announced Olczyk before the game, some guy in the second balcony yelled, "Hey Olczyk! Your wife's a dyke!" Obviously I have no idea how accurate that comment was, but it was hysterical none the less.
Back then, the team's dinosaur owner, Bill Wirtz, refused to broadcast home games on local TV, even when the games were sold out, arguing that it wasn't fair to the ticket-buying fans. (Who presumably couldn't care less, since they wouldn't need to watch on TV anyway.) This mindless stance even extended to playoff games, and when the Hawks made the playoffs in 1991, I went so far as to watch every game at Sluggers in Wrigleyville, which swiped every game off the satellite dish and made a small fortune showing them on a huge projection screen in their back room. (Being there also gave me the memorable sight of a drunken patron, who had been at the Cub game that afternoon and whose drinking day had undoubtedly commenced around mid-morning, blearily marking the end of a Hawks' loss by flinging a full can of beer at the big screen. And not being ejected.)
My buddy Chris and I would sit there in the plastic lawn chairs at Sluggers during the Hawks-North Stars opening series, drinking far too many beers for a weeknight, and wondering if there would be enough players left on the ice to finish the game after the endless fights (especially between the troglodyte tag-teams of Stu Grimson-Mike Peluso vs. Basil McRae-Shane Churla) sent most of both rosters to the penalty box. But spending the next two years in Champaign for grad school dampened my ardor for the Hawks, even despite them reaching the 1992 Stanley Cup finals but losing to Pittsburgh, in what would be their last finals appearance before this season. And I've mostly been away from the team ever since.
Ah, yes, this season. Bill Wirtz passed away several years ago, and his son Rocky has totally revitalized the team, doing all of the right things. Putting home games on TV. Embracing the team's old icons - Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Tony Esposito - and bringing them back as heroes and the best goodwill ambassadors the team could possible have. Signing the team's young stars - Kane, Toews, Keith - to expensive long-term deals, locking them up as the stable core of the team for years to come instead of pinching pennies and letting them escape as free agents. And now they're one win from their first Stanley Cup since 1961.
And yet I can't really claim to being a fan, or truly savoring their fantastic playoff run. I just don't have that emotional attachment to the team, haven't been to a game in person for fifteen years didn't even watch a substantial portion of a game on TV this season until just this past Sunday, and am only just now figuring out how to pronounce "Byfuglien." So instead of getting stark-raving-mad, red-jersey-attired like most of the city seems to have become, I'm instead admiring the Hawks from a safe distance. Part of that is that I hate bandwagoners and know I have no right to claim to suddenly be a fan after ignoring the team for so long, and suppose part of it is also that, being so familiar with Chicago sports for so many years, there's always the nagging feeling that defeat will ultimately be snatched from the jaws of victory, as the Bears and especially the Cubs have proven so memorably, time and again.
When the Hawks win it - and I do mean when; they truly seem to be the team of destiny - I'll just sit back, smile, and raise a glass to them. But I won't be getting shitfaced drunk, running out to the souvenir stand or lining up for the victory parade. It will be their victory, and that of their true-blooded and long-suffering fans, but not mine. And I'm fine with that. This is great for Chicago, and I'm glad to be a part of it, even from such a far distance.